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The Scientific Reason Winter Is Prime Heart Attack Season (And How You Can Stay Safe)

The cold really is harder on your heart. Before the temperatures drop, know how to keep your ticker healthy and avoid a heart attack during winter.

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Winter Really *Is* Heart Attack Season—Here’s Why

It’s not just in your head: Cold weather can affect your health—in particular your heart. A 16-year study of more than 280,000 patients, reported on ScienceDaily, found that heart attack incidents peak in winter, which may be due to colder temperatures or changes in behaviour.

According to the American Heart Association, keeping warm can help protect your heart. Cold weather steals body heat, which means the body has to fight harder to keep its core temperature warm enough. This is particularly important for the elderly, who may have less body fat and a diminished ability to sense temperature, and people with cardiovascular disease. Here are the potential risks of cold weather, and what you can do to reduce their impact on your heart.

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We Get Less Exercise in Winter

Although it’s challenging, it’s important to keep moving when the temperature drops. Exercise makes your heart stronger (like all muscles) and helps protect against coronary artery disease and vascular disease.

According to cardiologists Jennifer H. Mieres, MD, FACC and Stacey E. Rosen, MD, FACC, co-authors of Heart Smart for Women, Six Steps in Six Weeks to Heart-Healthy Living, your goal should be to take every opportunity to keep your body moving, rather than remaining sitting or standing still. Their suggestions include pacing the room while you’re on the phone or watching TV, parking your car farther away from your office, the store, etc., and getting up from your desk at least once every hour to stretch your legs for at least one minute.

Here are 50 more heart health tips from cardiologists across Canada.

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Bad Sleep Habits

A good night’s sleep is crucial for your well-being, and especially your heart health. Sleep heals and repairs your heart and blood vessels, and failing to get enough on a regular basis is linked to an increased risk of high blood pressure and heart disease.

If your room temperature is too low during winter it may interfere with your sleep pattern. The National Sleep Foundation recommends setting your thermostat to between 15 and 19 degrees Celsius for optimal sleep. You should also take care not to oversleep: 2012 research links too much sleep to a higher risk of heart disease. Try to stick to the National Sleep Foundation recommendations, which are seven to nine hours of sleep for most adults between 18 and 64 years of age.

These songs will give you the best night’s sleep, according to science.

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High Stress Levels

The holidays can cause a great deal of emotional stress for many people, says Jennifer Haythe, MD, cardiologist for the Center for Advanced Cardiac Care and co-director of the Women’s Center for Cardiovascular Health at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center.  Stress harms your heart and blood vessels thanks to stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, and inflammatory proteins called cytokines. These substances lead to the hardening of the arteries and increase the risk of stroke and heart attack.

The first step to managing your stress levels is to identify what is causing them to rise. Then take some steps to reduce stress. If you feel more lonely and isolated during winter, call someone. Mieres and Rosen suggest relaxation techniques such as meditation and visualization, which have been proven to reduce anxiety and the severity of congestive heart failure. They recommend using a reputable website like the American Heart Association to learn effective stress management techniques.

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Risk of Flu

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, flu viruses are most common during the fall and winter. Flu is highly contagious, and associated with an increased risk of heart attacks and stroke. If you have heart disease, or have had a stroke, it’s vital that you get the seasonal vaccine. The CDC not only recommends the flu vaccine, but taking preventive measures, such as washing your hands often with soap and water often and after being in public spaces; avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth to prevent the spread of germs. You can protect others by covering your nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing—throw the tissue away right after using it—and staying home when you are sick, except to get medical care.

Find out more diseases you can prevent simply by washing your hands.

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Strenuous Activity

If you’ve already experienced one heart attack, or may be at risk for one, you should know your risks and physical limitations, warns Richard Kovacs, MD, cardiologist at Indiana University Health. Avoid certain activities during cold weather, such as shovelling, walking in the snow, and driving in inclement weather, all of which can put added stress on the heart. Make sure you know the warning signs of a heart attack, especially shortness of breath and chest discomfort.

If you have to shovel snow, cardiologist Andrew Freeman, MD, offers advice on how to keep your heart safe. Don’t shovel first thing in the morning, because your blood is most likely to clot at this time of the day. “Give yourself time to get up and moving before going out and grabbing the shovel,” says Dr. Freeman. Warm up before shovelling, dress appropriately with your hands, head, and mouth covered, and work in shifts, taking a break every 15 minutes to help lessen the load on your heart.

Check out 30 more ways to boost your heart health.

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Excess Alcohol

It may be party season, but know the risks of too much alcohol before you start celebrating. Alcohol can make you feel warmer than you really are and therefore can be particularly dangerous when you’re outside in the cold, say cardiologists at Northwestern Medicine. Be aware of your limits and stick to them, and be prepared for being out at night in the cold. Stay warm and dry by dressing in layers, beginning with a lightweight, insulating base layer. Body-heat loss relates to how much skin is exposed, so don’t forget a hat, scarf, and gloves. Water is also great for retaining body heat, says summitpost.org, so stay hydrated.

Find out more surprising ways your body deals with freezing weather.

Originally Published on Reader's Digest